Culture eats strategy for breakfast. Or so we’ve been told. But what happens when you try building culture through strategy? This is what we attempted to do in the Open Society Foundations’ Economic Justice Program. The program, which sought to articulate the first concentrated effort of OSF to combat systemic economic injustice globally, officially wrapped up in January 2022, and before it did we created our very own yearbook to commemorate the program’s short life. When answering the question ‘What was your proudest moment while working at EJP?’, many team members commented on the strategy:

“Despite numerous moments when many of us (definitely me) wondered if it might not actually be possible — we truly became a team, with a strategy and a culture we all believed in.”

Where we were: In 2019, when we set out to develop the Economic Justice Program’s strategy, the program had only just been created. Formed through a merger of two former OSF programs, it brought together around 40 people from across multiple teams — including both grantmakers and impact investors — all with vastly different experiences and outlooks. It was the start of a major effort, a new focus for the Foundations on the issue of economic justice; but these newly assembled team members also had experience, from their previous programs and other work with OSF leadership and across the Foundations. And experience often comes with its own baggage. Plus, as a result of the myriad institutional changes that had taken place, people were skeptical that they would have a say in defining and designing the new program’s strategic and programmatic direction. In essence, we were less a ‘team’ and more a group of individuals, grappling with uncertainty.

What we did: The process of developing the strategy wasn’t perfect; at times it was even messy. Along our design journey, we had to adapt to changing contexts including COVID-19 and the racial justice movement, requests from OSF leadership, and field partner priorities. It’s true that, at times, the decision-making rationale of the program’s senior leadership team (which included Megan) wasn’t always clear and left staff dissatisfied with the strategy process or its outcomes. For instance, in order to make way for new priorities and focus, the leadership team made decisions to close bodies of work long championed by individual program staff whose own expertise and careers were often deeply embedded in those fields.

Overall, however, team members praised the rigor, thoughtfulness, and participation that characterized our journey towards developing a new strategy. Despite shifting constraints, competing priorities, and roadblocks encountered along the way, and even with people split across three different office locations, we ended up with a greater sense of collective purpose and our individual places in it. More important was just how proud everyone felt about the grantmaking and impact investment work that we had designed together.

Read the full article about strategy design by Megan Colnar and Robin Varghese at The Center for Effective Philanthropy.